Friday, September 23, 2011

Caduceus and the Rod of Asclepius

Symbolism has always been something that interests me - I grew up in a family church (Pentacostal Assembly of God) and religious symbolism always was abundant. The dove is a symbol of peace. The olive branch is a symbol of hope (it was what the dove bore in its beak as it returned to the ark after the flood). The cross. The blood of Christ. Everything is an allegory or a metaphor waiting to be interpreted and applied to your life!

Yesterday, I was having a chat with a very dear person at my nursing school. She has always been very supportive and kind, and as we were saying goodbyes, she stopped me and gave me a gift. It was a bracelet, and threaded on the bracelet was a small silver charm with this symbol:

She explained to me that this is the symbol of nursing, and that she thought I could look at the charm whenever I felt discouraged. She believed in me and thought I would make a great nurse someday. I have to tell you, I welled up a bit! That totally made my day. 

I'm not much of a bracelet person so I moved the charm to my necklace, right next to my small silver Stonehenge that I purchased when visiting London a couple of years ago. I thought it made a nice look - travel and nursing, right? Anyway, when I got home, I looked up the symbol to see if I could learn a little more about its history. 

Turns out, this little sketch that we Westerners seem to recognize as the universal symbol of medicine? A case of mistaken identity! The symbol above, with the rod and snakes and wings, is called the Caduceus. Its origin lies in Greek mythology - there are several different stories surrounding the development of the symbolism, but my favorite is that the Greek god Hermes noticed two snakes engaging in a fight to the death. He used his staff to separate them, and thus brought peace to the situation. So in this way, this symbol can represent diplomacy!

But alas, this symbol is not the actual sketch intended to represent healing and medicine. This actual symbol is called the Rod of Asclepius and looks like this:

Rod of Asclepius
As you can see, this symbol incorporates a rod with only one snake wrapped around it, and no wings. This rod, also Greek in origin, belonged to Asclepius, Apollo's son, who practiced medicine. The idea is that an infection of worms could be healed if the stick was placed on the body - the worm would wrap itself around the stick and leave the body (there's an image!). You can also link this imagery to the bible - Numbers 21:4-9 can be interpreted to correspond: 
The Bronze Snake
 4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” 6 Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
 8 The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

So if this is the true symbol of medicine, why is the caduceus used so often to represent healing in the United States? The answer is lengthy, debatable, and interesting if you have some time to investigate, but I think it comes down to the fact that it was adopted by the Army in the early 20th century and kind of ... stuck. Many medical professionals don't like that this symbol is used instead of Asclepius' rod, because the caduceus has been associated with the god Mercury, who is the guide of the dead and protector of merchants, shepherds, gamblers, liars, and thieves!!!

But here is my commentary on that last bit....I think that this fact makes the caduceus even that much more appropriate as a medical symbol. As nurses, it is not our duty to make moral judgments about our patients! Gamblers, liars, and thieves get sick too...and it is our professional duty to care for them regardless of circumstance. So often I hear nurses on the floor referring to "frequent fliers" or "drug-seekers" just coming in to the hospital to get their morphine fix. But we have to remember that surgery is surgery, and if this were your family, you wouldn't want them to be in pain. 

I like the symbol. Both of them, actually. I'm proud to wear it, and proud to protect my patients from pain and suffering. I'm proud to help diplomatically negotiate insurance and health care plans to get them the care they need. And I'm proud to try every day to try to be a solid moral example. Sure, I'm imperfect. But looking at that shiny charm around my neck and remembering the hug from my new friend is all I need to keep me going!



  1. Interesting and timely for me. I am in the process of designing a quilt for my Air Force Medic niece and am incorporating a Caduceus! How appropriate that it seems to have arisen as the contemporary symbol of medicine in the army (Air Force was spun off the army in the late 40's).

  2. Very interesting! Sharing this one. :-)

  3. Thanks ladies! I thought so too...!!!

  4. I always love learning about new history stuff Amanda great research and a very interesting story !